The Road to Shut Down ’13:
From the Clinton Wars to the New Confederates
The 2013 shut down of the government by Tea Party Republicans is not an event that just spontaneously sprung up this year, but rather is the result of over twenty years of actions each building on the next that made this conflict predictable if not inevitable.
Great conflicts require formidable adversaries. Yet from 1968 to 1988, Republicans had a virtual lock on the White House winning on average by 52.7% – 43.0%, with the sole exception being Jimmy Carter’s narrow victory following Watergate. Then came William Jefferson Clinton who was able to beat President Bush in a three-way race with only 43 percent of the vote.
The Republicans recognized right away the threat posed by a successful New Democrat and they were determined at the outset to challenge his legitimacy and to obstruct wherever possible. House Speaker Gingrich, who once said that Clinton supporters were “the enemy of normal Americans,” believed that they had to fight the Democrats “with the scale and duration and savagery that is only true of civil wars” — and he delivered.
“Clinton Not My President”
President Clinton told Joel Klein that:
|After I got here and started dealing with them, I realized that the Republicans had been in power since Nixon . . . They figured there’d never be another Democratic President. . . . So they just never saw me as a legitimate person.|
Prominent Republicans such as Representative Dick Armey and Senate candidate Oliver North openly declared Clinton was not their President.
Klein himself wrote in The Natural:
|From the beginning of his presidency, there was indeed the sense – radiating from the Gingrich wing of the Republican Party . . . that the new President was a usurper who had managed to hoodwink the American public. He was to be opposed at every turn, by any means necessary, and, if possible, destroyed.|
Devolution on Health Care
With today’s reflexive rants that Obamacare is part of a godless, socialist plot, forgotten are the origins of the Clinton and Obama proposals. The Clinton plan was spurred in part by a push by the Business Roundtable for universal coverage since health care costs were becoming a competitive burden. Items such as the individual mandate came from the conservative Heritage Foundation’s proposal entitled “A National Health System for America.”
Republicans initially sought to push a compromise proposal, the “Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993,” which also included an individual mandate. Introduced by Senator Chafee (R-RI), the bill had 18 Republican co-sponsors including conservative Senators Bennett (R-UT), Grassley (R-IA) and Hatch (R-UT) who would later lead the charge against Obamacare.
As Jacob Weisberg explains in Slate, it was at this point we witnessed the death of the Responsible Republicans. Former Vice President Quayle aide William Kristol wrote a memo to Republican leadership stressing that “the Clinton proposal is also a serious political threat to the Republican Party” and therefore Republicans must “adopt an aggressive and uncompromising counterstrategy designed to delegitimize the proposal”.
As a result the Republicans abandoned all compromise proposals, health care reform died and Republicans were rewarded for their efforts by taking control of both houses of Congress following the 1994 election. Weisberg notes that it was the embrace of Kristol’s recommendation that
|marks the pivotal moment when Republicans shifted from fundamentally responsible partners in governing the country to uncompromising, hyperpartisan antagonists on all issues.|
The Clinton Wars
Newt Gingrich became the leader of what conservative columnist George Will described as “ideologically intoxicated” Republicans who believe that “Democrats are not merely mistaken but sinful” or as one Republican conceded to Elizabeth Drew, simply feel that “they were totally right and the other side was totally wrong.” Gingrich’s disciples embraced his attack philosophy as they shared his belief that “the Earth must be scorched and sown with salt before the Heavenly City can be built.”
Gingrich and his crusaders marched right into the first partisan shutdown of the government, as Republicans shut down the government for 28 days in late 1995 and early 1996. Gingrich sought to justify breaking off discussions after allegedly being snubbed on Air Force One on the flight home from the funeral of assassinated Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, but it backfired after the White House produced a photograph contradicting him and the New York Daily News captured and cemented national sentiment with its famous “Cry Baby” headline.
The shut down ended with Republicans taking a hit in the polls and Bill Clinton cruising to reelection. Clinton’s reelection, however, only intensified the Republicans efforts to destroy him and the Lewinsky scandal gave them that opportunity. Once again, Republicans overreached and pushed for impeachment despite overwhelming public opposition, paying a steep political price in becoming the first party out of power since 1822 to lose seats in a mid-term election. The polls were clear and the voters had spoken, yet when they returned for the post-election lame duck session, Gingrich pushed forward with impeachment nonetheless, explaining he did so simply “because we can.”
Gingrich stepped down as Speaker and resigned from Congress as a result of his 1998 electoral failure, while Clinton prevailed in the impeachment trial and finished his term with a 66 percent approval rating.
Act II: Prevent Another Successful Democratic Presidency
In 2004, a young Senate candidate named Barack Obama electrified the Democratic Convention with a keynote speech that spoke to an increasingly divided nation:
|For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we are connected as one people. . . . It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.|
That notion would be tested in January 2009 when that young man became the 44th President and the first African American to hold the office. From the start, Republicans would deploy the same methods – challenge the President’s legitimacy and obstructionism – but with greater ferocity and open disregard for majority rule.
When President Obama took office in 2009, the economy was still in tailspin. President Obama pushed for a stimulus to prevent what some called The Great Depression 2.0 that included the largest tax cut in history. Nearly 200 Republicans had supported the Bush stimulus only months earlier, but under President Obama only three did (with one of switching parties thereafter). The message coming from leadership was they will not let Obama succeed on anything.
In the Senate, Mitch McConnell used the filibuster to gum up what was once the world’s greatest deliberative body such that (i) less than half of Obama’s judicial nominees have been confirmed (compared to 93 percent for Reagan); (ii) some regulatory boards are unable to obtain a quorum to act since Republicans will not confirm appointed commissioners; and (iii) approximately 70 percent of major legislation is now subject to some form of filibuster thus changing the structure of government from majority rule to minority veto.
Republicans, who had been silent while the Bush administration burned through a surplus and added $5 trillion to the deficit through tax cuts, Medicare expansion and two wars without paying for them, became overnight fiscal hawks. In 2011 they threatened to block an increase in the debt ceiling (thereby raising the specter of a government default) with the result being a downgrading of U.S. debt that will cost U.S. taxpayers $18.9 billion over ten years (and the amount is approximately a quarter of the amount needed to repair structurally deficient bridges across the country — something to think about the next time a bridge collapses). In addition, while Republicans attempt to use these deadlines to portray Obama as some reckless spender, he actually has cut the annual budget deficit in half!
Obamacare and the New Confederates
The biggest battle of all, however, has been over health care. The market-based proposal that the Republicans offered as an alternative to Hillary-care, became “socialism” once it morphed into Obamacare. Republicans were unsuccessful in preventing its passage in 2010 and their legal challenge was subsequently rejected by the Supreme Court. In 2008, former Massachusetts Governor Romney (who had implemented a similar program in Massachusetts) vowed that he would repeal Obamacare as his first act as President only to lose decisively to Obama.
Yet Republicans’ madness over Obamacare knows no bounds. After 42 votes to repeal Obamacare got them nowhere, Republicans now are willing to hold the nation hostage just to kill or simply delay the program. Republicans attempt to shift the blame to Obama by complaining he will not negotiate, but why should he when there are sufficient votes to pass a clean continuing resolution in the House but Speaker Boehner is blocking the vote and negotiating would only encourage future efforts at brinkmanship?
|If Obamacare is the “train wreck” opponents claim it will be, voters soon will have the opportunity to choose leaders with better ideas, at the mid-term elections in 2014 and the presidential election in 2016. That’s called democracy.|
It is not just Obamacare but also democracy that is under attack by the GOP zealots. In his brilliant and prescient 1995 piece American Weimar, Steve Erickson explained that
|[h]istory is clear that democracy cannot long navigate a sea of national rage. Untempered by rationale and open-mindedness, fury eventually consumes democracy rather than nourishes it, because it overwhelms our tolerance, our willingness to be reasonably informed, our determination to hold ourselves accountable for what we decide. Most important, it overwhelms our basic faith in democracy itself.|
That is what is happening in America today. Tea Party representatives and their members still refuse to accept their defeat in 2012. The voters were simply wrong. To paraphrase Erickson who wrote with respect to the Republican’s refusal to accept Clinton, “in essence, the Right argues that a democracy that produces an [Obama] presidency invalidates itself” and they are free to ignore it.
That is what they have done. Rather than recalibrate their message to win wider support, Republicans have demonstrated their disdain for the voters by (i) seeking to revive Jim Crow voter suppression laws to prevent future Democratic victories and (ii) now shutting down the government.
Coldberg King calls them the New Confederacy, explaining they are
|as churlish toward President Obama as the Old Confederacy was to Lincoln, [yet] it has accomplished what its predecessor could not: It has shut down the federal government, and without even firing a weapon . . . .Its members are as extreme as their ideological forebears. It matters not to them, as it didn’t to the Old Confederacy, whether they ultimately go down in flames.|
For five years the Republicans have waged war against majority rule, triggering Time Magazine’s poignant cover. As this crisis continues, it is time for the Republicans to decide whether they will behave as responsible members of the loyal opposition or whether they are simply saboteurs. More importantly, it is time for all Americans – Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike – to make note of their choice and hold them accountable.
It is my hope that this crisis will end promptly and that the Republicans pay dearly for their actions so that no future Congress even contemplates holding the American people hostage again.